Combs’ 2014-15 season, the sixth of his pro career, saw him play for no fewer than five teams, in three different countries, including three separate ECHL squads.
“Really racked up the air miles,” Combs joked about his Odyssey. “I started in Russia and I was trying to find a good fit overseas, and that obviously wasn’t it, and I came back to North America for a bit, and I tried Sweden, and unfortunately that wasn’t a good fit either. So it was tough.”
Combs played 11 games with Toros Neftekamsk in the VHL, Russia’s second-tier league, to start the year, then joined the Allen Americans, for whom he burnt up the ECHL, striking for 22 goals and 54 points in only 32 games. He headed across the pond again in mid-January, joining IF Björklöven of Sweden’s Allsvenskan, but left that club after only three games.
In the course of returning to the ECHL, Combs was claimed off waivers by the Stockton Thunder, and piled up five goals and eight assists for 13 points in ten games in a Thunder uniform. Another waiver transaction saw him go from Stockton to the Cincinnati Cyclones, with whom Combs completed the season with four goals and three assists for seven points in five games.
Got all that?
It was certainly a whirlwind year, and, according to Combs, just a matter of running into different circumstances that kept necessitating a change of jerseys.
“There’s a couple of things that went wrong in each individual situation,” he elaborated. “For Russia, it was really tough for me to adjust to the culture and the language. There wasn’t much English over there, so it was tough after a couple of months and I decided to come back. And then I was doing really well here (in North America) and I wanted to take an opportunity in Sweden. Actually I really enjoyed Sweden, it’s a great country. Unfortunately I wasn’t playing all that much, and so that’s the reason I came back from there. It was just different reasons, but nothing against any organization.”
And all was well that ended well, as Combs’ outstanding ECHL numbers, which saw him finish ninth in the league in points, with a combined 31-45-76 in only 47 total games among his three teams, led to an AHL contract offer from the Ranger organization.
“I finished the year in Cincinnati, and this summer my agent and I were just looking for a good fit and the Rangers showed some interest,” Combs said. “I couldn’t have been more excited to join the organization, and hopefully I can do really well here and contribute.”
One of the real attractions of the Ranger offer to Combs was the Rangers’ pattern of giving advancement opportunities to players who perform well with Greenville, like Chad Nehring, whose yeoman work in the ECHL early last season led to a full-time job with the Wolf Pack and a prime role this year.
“That’s what they (the Rangers) said this summer, that if I didn’t make the team out of camp, just go down (to Greenville) and tear it up, and that’s what I tried to do,” Combs said. “I think I did my part, and hopefully I can do it here.”
Combs was leading the Swamp Rabbits in points (31) and goals (15), and was tied for the ECHL goals lead and third in points, when he got the call to join the Wolf Pack December 27. Many top-level AHL offensive players see their roles change significantly when they get chances at the NHL level, and Combs confirms that the same often happens to ECHL offensive stalwarts who move up to the AHL.
“It depends on the situation,” he said. “Here I’m playing third or fourth line, so it’s obviously a little different that playing first line down in Greenville, but I play my game no matter what line I’m on. I just try and produce and not be a liability defensively, and just help the team win.
“I just try to produce, whatever role I’m in and wherever I’m at, that’s my job. I’ve been a lot of places, so I’ve learned to adapt quickly and hopefully I can start putting up some points here. I know, deep down, I can play any line in this league, and whatever role I’m put in, I just want to do well and help the team win.”
There is a positive, too, to being asked to fill a third or fourth-line slot in the AHL, as it forces Combs to concentrate on playing away from the puck, playing a “200-foot game”, as coaches like to say.
“That’s something that I’ve struggled with for my whole career,” Combs said, “so I’ve been trying to get better at it every year, and I think I’m on my way. I know I still need to improve, and hopefully I can shore that up this year.”
Another opportunity for Combs to broaden his horizons with the Wolf Pack is through using his considerable experience to help steady the Pack locker room. Although it is often difficult for players who join the team in mid-stream from a different league to exert leadership, Combs, at 27, is one of the more seasoned individuals on the Pack roster, and he is eager to do whatever he can to help the younger players progress.
“I think that’s something that older guys take pride in,” he said. “You want to help the guy next to you out as much as you can, and share that knowledge and that experience with them. Obviously this league’s a pretty young league now and I’ve had some years under my belt, so I relish that role.”
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